Safari 4 Goes to Eleven

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Safari 4 is faster than the other browsers, says Apple, but some performance measurement experts take issue with the claim. The speed difference among the major competing browsers is in the neighborhood of 1 second, in any case, so does it really matter? What might be more relevant to users are the features a browser boasts.

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL)  reports that in the past three days more than 11 million copies of the newly released Safari 4 have been downloaded — including more than 6 million downloads of Safari for Windows.

It is easy to see why — at least from Apple’s perspective. Safari 4 is the fastest browser on the market, the company claims, besting Microsoft’s (Nasdaq: MSFT)  Internet Explorer 8 by eightfold.

It is also three times faster than Firefox 3. Apple credits its advanced browser technologies, including its new Nitro JavaScript engine.

Speedy and Feature-Rich

Stacked up against Safari 3, version 4 represents a significant improvement in the browsing experience. To point out just one example, 4 includes Top Sites, which makes it easy to find a previously visited Web page. Top Sites, along with such new features as Full History Search and Cover Flow, is based on the latest Web standards, according to Apple, including HTML 5 and advanced CSS Effects.

Is 4 faster than 3, however? Subjectively speaking, based on one morning of Web surfing with the new browser, version 4 does indeed appear to be faster. The Nitro engine runs JavaScript up to 4.5 times faster than Safari 3, says Apple.

“Certainly, Safari 4 is very fast,” Imad Mouline, CTO of Gomez, told MacNewsWorld. “Apple has introduced a number of features — namely, its new Javascript engine — that have enhanced the speed considerably.”

Nitro has the ability to download Javascript files in parallel, instead of sequentially, he said, which means that Safari can run faster on the newer, composite-designed Web sites.

Tough Questions

Is Safari 4 actually faster than IE8 or Firefox 3, as Apple claims? That question is difficult to be subjective about, especially for a Mac devotee whose default browser is Safari. As it turns out, it’s also getting harder for Web performance engineers to objectively answer this question.

“Relying on impressions to judge browser speed is never a good thing, because it is usually colored by your feelings about the browser — or, in this case, maybe about Apple,” said Michael Czeiszperger, a testing engineer with Web Performance.

That’s why objective tests are done, he told MacNewsWorld.

Safari 4 may well be faster when stacked up against certain industry benchmarks; that apparently was the basis for Apple’s claims about its performance, Czeiszperger said.

Monica Sarkar of Apple did not return a call to MacNewsWorld in time for publication.

Web Performance, however, tested Safari 4 against 15 popular Web sites and did not find a huge difference in performance.

Everything’s Fast

The difference in speed among the browsers has narrowed considerably, according to Czeiszperger, with Safari 4 having a one-second advantage over Firefox 3.

It registers the same speed compared with IE 8 and Chrome, he noted.

On some Web sites, IE would be faster, though; ditto for Firefox. In short, the browser wars — or at least the speed competition — is over. How a browser performs depends a great deal on the Web site in question.

“How that page is designed has much to do with whether Safari’s Javascript execution translates into faster speed,” Czeiszperger said.

“It is difficult now to say that this particular browser or that on is the fastest,” Mouline said. “It all depends on how the Web site is structured, and how it uses different aspects of the features that the browsers make available for optimization.”

The subjective measures of evaluation are even suspect because of the new technology.

Safari 4, Mouline said, “has made a special effort in not only improving raw performance, but also its perceived performance.”

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